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BRUSSELS – Wear better quality clothing garments and wash them less often is the key message of a new report into the growing problem of microplastics finding their way into the marine environment and ultimately the human food chain. With an estimated 20-35 per cent of all microplastics in marine environments coming from synthetic clothing, the report suggests increasing our use of natural fibres such as cotton and wool could help the problem – a recommendation which is at odds with last year’s Global Fashion Agenda Pulse of the Industry report which promoted the use of man made fibres such as polyester.

Microplastic pollution from textiles: A literature review was commissioned by Australian Wool Innovation and the Cotton Research and Development Corporation.

The report confirmed that microfibres – tiny pieces of plastic shed from clothing made of synthetic fibres – are escaping waste-water treatment plants and ending up in the food chain. Hence the researchers recommend investing in higher quality garments which shed less, washing clothing less often, and washing on gentler cycles.

They authors say: “A significant contribution would come from promoting long-lasting garments based on increasing the proportion of natural, biodegradable fibre in the wardrobe,” adding that while all garments shed to some extent during use and washing, the quality and type of fibre is significant.

The harmful effects of microfibre pollution include the ingestion of microfibres by organisms in oceans, freshwater and coastal habitats, and this issue is compounded by toxic compounds which are attracted to and retained by the microfibres.

The authors claim the greatest contribution to lessening the damage of microfibre contamination of the environment would come from consuming and disposing of fewer textiles.

They add: “Wool for example is made of keratin, a natural protein which has evolved with mammals for tens of millions of years, along with many species of bacteria and fungi in water and soil that thrive on it.

“Unlike plastic-based fibres, wool is not something synthesised in a laboratory, which nature had never previously encountered before the 1950s.”

While this report cannot claim to be completely impartial having been commissioned by the cotton and wool sectors, we believe it is a welcome addition to the current debate on microplastics.

If last year’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry report left many of us scratching our heads about what appeared to be a defence of the fast fashion business model where polyester is the dominant fibre, here we have a piece of research which goes some way to redressing the balance and – dare we say it – bringing a welcome dose of common sense to this critical fashion industry issue.


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